When a scientist discovers an alien radio wave and the existence of another planet, the setup of a mission begins. Unexpectedly, four Jesuit priests, an astronomer, a physician, her engineering husband and a computer expert are sent to be the first in contact.
Author Mary Doria Russell immediately sets personalities, focusing on one character per short chapter. Jumping quickly from each, she begins an interweaving leading to their unexpected and lucky expedition to Rakhat.
Father Emilio Sandoz is exposed as the sole survivor of the Rakhat expedition in the first few sentences. His journey is an intense, heartfelt search for new languages and his belief in God.
Combining religion with the storyline generates an underlying tension and understanding that Russell knits into each character’s reaction. As Sandoz’s character is explored, his life is analyzed in the view that everything has led to his travel to Rakhat.
This line of fate drives his beliefs and responses and also forms his friendships. Anne and George, the physician and engineer, quickly become his close friends in debate and love.
As the friendships grow, so do the number of experiences that eventually assist them on the new planet. The layout of the chapters and unpredictable experiences keep readers guessing.
Russell briefly describes the new planet and its inhabitants in multiple places. But as Sandoz’s story unfolds, the reader finally gets a satisfying explanation of what they look like and how their lives work.
The Jesuit priests stray from the typical missions that readers may associate them with. They do not act as missionaries but rather as normal scientists and explorers, which comes as unexpected at first.
Religion is still an underlying factor in many of their decisions and is astutely inserted into the character’s conversations. However, Rakhat is not explored in terms of religion but only as a scientific object at first.
The relationships the explorers form with the Runa and other Rakhat species explain their personalities and the expectations they formed for themselves in regards to what they believed about God.
But this novel is not a religious novel. It explores, mainly, one man’s life leading up to such an extraordinary opportunity. The people he meets along his lifetime and among the new species helps shape his mind and happiness.
The scientific aspect of the novel does not overwhelm a reader, and is instead a supplement to the scenery and explanation given of Rakhat. Explanations are offered just barely on the surface, leaving the interpretation of Rakhat to the imagination.
In a unique and interesting novel, Russell sufficiently opens the mind to the possibility, and opportunity, opened with the exploration of a new planet by those hoping to find themselves.
Staff writer Kelly Bleck can be reached at email@example.com.